10 years

July 27th 2003, exactly 10 years ago today, was when I stepped of the airplane in Tokyo and started my vague “move to Japan to study kendo and learn the language” experiment. That I’d still be here all this time later is… I don’t know, surprising? Stupid? Crazy? Probably all of the above! Like the vagueness of the initial experiment, I’ve no real plan for this post, so let me run with it and see where it goes.

Although now I’m in what many people assume to be an envious kendo situation, needless to say it hasn’t come without a lot of sacrifice and hard work (not to mention luck), and it continues to be both physically and mentally hard even now. I’ve thought seriously countless times about giving it up and heading back to Europe, but somehow here I still am. I’m not sure exactly how much longer I can keep it up!

I arrived in Japan about 2 weeks after taking part in the 12th World Kendo Championships, held in my home country of Scotland. I was sandan at the time and I knew what I was talking about (actually, I was clueless). One of the first keiko’s I was invited to was a combined primary and junior high school one. With my faltering Japanese I explained my background. I still remember the sensei looking at me and saying “World Kendo Championships? Where was that held? Last year wasn’t it? Who won?” Yeah, the most prestigious competition of the international kendo community meant nothing to your *average Japanese 7dan. Suddenly I was disarmed. The sensei then asked did I want to join the junior high schools kihon routine. Yes, I said, and joined in only to be removed after about 15 minutes into the practise – I couldn’t keep up with the kids pace, I couldn’t understand the Japanese instructions been given, and – frankly – I was so unskilled compared to the students that joining in ruined it for my partners. I’d just been force fed a dose of reality.

Over the next 10 years I’d be force fed on a number of occasions. Getting a hard beating I can take, but its the mental challenge of doing kendo over here that can be the hardest thing to overcome. The fact is, integration is nigh on impossible. This isn’t just in the dojo of course, but a larger barrier that exists at the core of Japanese society. This is assuming of course that you don’t want to stick out, that you want to be treated like your other Japanese kendo friends as much as possible, and that you don’t try to use your awkward non-Japanese ‘special’ status to get some sort of preferential treatment. Even if you manage to fit in pretty well, if you go to a new dojo, take part in a shiai, or join some sort of godo-geiko, many people who haven’t seen you before will assume that you a) have bad kendo; b) you can’t speak the language; and c) you don’t understand what kendo is really about. This is, even for people who do want to stick out (not me btw) a very frustrating experience. Ultimately, this is not something an individual or even a group of individuals can change, and – for me personally – it has been the most disappointing part of my kendo experience in Japan.

I receive emails on a semi-regular basis that start “I love kendo. I want to move to Japan and study it seriously. What should I do?” My advice is almost always the same – “if you are in your early/mid 20s then come over for a year or two, learn the language as much as you can, and enjoy/explore Japan… all while getting in as much keiko as you can. After that, get out of dodge and go back to wherever and focus on your job/career and friends.” The reason why I say this is not only because of my personal experiences, but of those around me: I’ve yet to see a single non-Japanese person balance a successful kendo life and career (of course I don’t know every non-Japanese kendoka in the country). I guess those that do come out the most successful are the people that manage to get professional jobs and still manage to get to the dojo twice or three times a week. Honestly speaking – if your mind is set on coming to Japan – this is probably your best bet…. just remember that you may only do kendo 2 or maybe 3 times a week and you’ll probably have to live in or around Tokyo.

When all is said and done, I speak Japanese pretty well and I’m doing kendo a lot. I study under really strong teachers, great kendo friends, nice dojo’s with beautiful floors, etc etc. Sounds great doesn’t it? I guess it is!!!!!!!!!

* this attitude has changed slightly since then, but not as much as you may imagine

By George

George is the founder and chief editor of
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11 replies on “10 years”

Nice reality shot. Full siringe dosis. Good to know for all of us who dream about the Japan kendo experience. Pretty much it sounds like “once a gaijin always a gaijin”.
Congratulations for your 10 years endurance (and your valuable contributions out of that experience.)

Hey Santiago,

Well, I tried to be upbeat about it …. or at least I finished that way!! Theres a lot more that could be written, but perhaps a detailed exposé of kendo life in Japan is for another time!!!

Very honest post, George! I’ve never been to Japan but I have heard this from others as well. Perhaps the best that one can do is just embrace the fact of being an eternal outsider and take the best from it.

Question: do you think this will change as more foreigners like you live and interact in an every-day fashion? I’d like to think that change is happening but it will not manifest itself for a long time, given Japan’s “clannish” culture. Looking forward to your thoughts on this and I hope I was not too confusing! 🙂

Hmmm, not sure if I can answer your question.

As long as the Japanese education system remains as it is, and as long as the myth of a special ‘Japanese race’ continues to be promulgated openly and in public, then I see no change forthcoming. Discrimination is ingrained deeply here… you can even see it on NHK.

Omedetou san! Your advice to get in, learn the language, make the most of the experience and get out, pretty much reflects my own history. Time and infrequent visits back as an “honoured guest” help me to look back through “rose tinted glasses”, but I can respect your stamina as a perpetual outsider.

Then you made the right choice!!!! What I have gained in kendo experience – physically and knowledge-wise – is probably not worth losing a career and friends over. The benefit of hindsight eh?

“I’ve yet to see a single non-Japanese person balance a successful kendo life and career”

That makes me think about the great kendokas here in my country(Brazil) who manage to have a career and still are incredible strong fighters. Their difficulties are much bigger than an average japanese kendoka (in regard of kendo) but still they keep going and are able to face the japanese fighters (almost) as equals, i have enourmous admiration for then.

I wonder if there is a single kendoka in the world who doesn’t want to move to Japan for kendo hahaha

Yeah, its hard to balance both. Non-Japanese people in Japan have many difficulties which makes the balance hard to achieve.

Everybody wants to come here, but few stay for long.

Wow, I just came across this article. How did I miss it before? Dunno. Anyway, it’s a very personal and honest take on things, and certainly that is admirable.

I can understand what you’re pointing towards with your sentiments here. Although I only lived in Japan for 3 years I did have that sense that there was always an element of being “on show” with any new kenshi I came across. It was somewhat tiring in that I felt I was kind of having to “prove” myself time and time again. It was all particularly bad when I would first start practicing at a new dojo. Just like yourself, I was lost not only in the language commands, but also the routine each keiko followed.

For example, I attempted to practice with the Nagoya University kendo club for a while. I somehow finagled my way into their keiko sessions and was assigned a kind of helper. That poor guy. I think they gave him the very undesirable job of shepherding this strange foreigner simply because he spoke a mere smattering of English. Needless to say, I couldn’t keep up with the insanely rigorous pace of University kendo practices and I lasted about 3 months there.

Eventually I found my way to a much more suitable dojo with kenshi more my age/life stage.

That is where I feel my experience is a bit different. Once I settled into a dojo more suited to me, I found it to be a wonderful experience. Yes, there were those “on-show” moments with new kenshi, or at tournaments/shinsa, etc, but really I felt a tangible kinship with my dojo mates. My teacher in particular.

Maybe it’s your length of stay that gives you this insight George? 10 years is a hell of a long time. That could be the crux of it.

Or maybe you just had a bad curry when you wrote this. That vegetarian stuff will do that to ya!

I think 3 years is nowhere near the necessary length of time to ‘get it’ unless you are somehow immersed full time (not working and in full time language study perhaps… or maybe being independently wealth). 5 years might not be either. I’m not sure 10 is, but I feel I’ve had a somewhat different take on the matter re: my coaching responsibilities plus the constant koryu background, both of which add further dimensional elements to my experience that most can’t get or don’t bother with. I imagine also that short-termers always have the “I’m going home” thing in their mind, which is a possible barrier towards long-term, deep relationships.

At any rate, it sounds like you did it the ‘correct’ way !!

(p.s. I’m very happy to be vegetarian and don’t regret it for an instant.)

Ah, fair enough. A good point about having that “I’m going home” kernel of knowledge in my mind. I was always aware that my stay in Japan was a temporary one.

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